After getting hauled off at the Emirates Stadium during the half-time interval at the Emirates at the beginning of the month following a bizarre error for Arsenal’s second goal, Idrissa Gueye has put in two high-quality performances, in which he’s demonstrated improved focus. The veteran has been criticized in some quarters since returning to Everton last summer, three years after departing for PSG. It’s true he’s been guilty of dwelling on the ball occasionally and some sloppy passing in dangerous areas, costing the Blues a couple of goals, though arguably no points. The 33-year old has made an equal number of errors (three) costing the team a shot on goal as Jordan Pickford, James Tarkowski and Conor Coady.
Whilst undeniable, such lapses are possibly more a consequence of being in a side with an unreliable structure under ex-boss Frank Lampard and that Gueye, whilst a vastly experienced player, is not a classic holding midfielder. Still, without his presence in the centre of the park, the Everton defence would have been even more exposed than it has been, as he leads the side in combined tackles and interceptions per 90 (5.34), by some margin; only the departed Anthony Gordon has blocked more passes per game. In addition, the Senegalese is hugely ahead of anyone else in terms of ball recoveries (9.69 per 90), demonstrating his energy and defensive knowhow.
He is also far from careless with the ball - headline lapses notwithstanding. Gana is dispossessed, or takes a poor touch 1.94 times per 90, a lower rate than either Abdoulaye Doucoure (2.02) or Amadou Onana (2.42). His pass completion percentage leads the side (84.9%). Though hardly a creative player, he is tied for second (behind Alex Iwobi) for progressive passes (3.61) and plays more balls into the final third (3.77) per 90 than anyone else in Royal Blue, showing his importance in getting the side moving up the pitch.
Against Brentford, he showed all facets of his game. Second in pass accuracy to Onana (78.4%), tied with Iwobi in final third completions (five), Gueye led the Toffees in touches (51), made four tackles and interceptions combined and was streets ahead of anyone in loose ball recoveries (16). He also drove forward well on occasion, succeeding in all three attempted dribbles in what was a strong contender for a player-of-the-match performance. He likely does not have many years left in top-level football, but the Blues would have been an (even) poorer side this season without him.
Second Half Drop-off
In what is becoming a pattern under Sean Dyche, the Blues once again played with energy, purpose, even attacking verve during the first period on Sunday, only to drop off starkly after the interval. At this stage, it’s tough to imagine that the first part of this equation is not by design; the second, more a consequence of that initial effort and the manager’s increasingly apparent reluctance to turn to his bench.
As against Forest, the Toffees were in the driving seat, outshooting the visitors nine to three and by 0.88 to 0.38 in xG (Expected Goals) terms during the first half. From the restart, Brentford were in the ascendency, getting off nine attempts on goal to the host’s four and winning the xG battle by a whopping 1.72 to 0.14. Everton’s share of possession declined from 41.8% to 25.5%; between the 70th and 80th minute the Bees enjoyed an astonishing 91.4% control of the ball and fired off three shots.
Partly, the tactical changes made by visiting manager Thomas Frank were responsible for the stark shift in the balance of the match, as Brentford altered to playing through Everton and getting support closer to front man Ivan Toney. The visitors were first to every second ball, which had not been the case earlier. The Blues were pushed back and found it difficult to find an out ball: Demarai Gray lost all four aerial duels and only three of Pickford’s 25 long passes reached a Blue shirt. The clearances and hopeful punts up the pitch increased markedly and there was little connected play from Everton.
Frank made two changes in the 62nd minute and again in the 74th. In reply, Dyche could only throw on Tom Davies with ten minutes to go, with time-wasting substitutions in the closing stages. Everton showed remarkable stamina and work rate to keep Brentford out, under serious pressure for such a prolonged period. As it was, they required a great save from Pickford and a goal line clearance from Dwight McNeil to secure all three points. It’s hard to imagine them getting over the line doing this away from Goodison Park.
I’d been nervous as to how Michael Keane would cope with Toney, but the 29-year old played the dangerous striker exceptionally well on the day. The centre half battled in the air, winning five of nine aerial challenges and more than matched the Brentford hitman physically, refusing to be intimidated, staying tight and not giving up a single foul. The ex-Burnley man was composed on the ball also, posting by far the highest pass completion percentage of the Blues back four.
One more, McNeil was a standout. I had pointed him out beforehand as someone with the quality to add goal threat for Everton and he wasted no time in proving that point, with an excellent left-foot finish in the opening seconds. He carried the ball forward (five progressive runs) and showed his usual commitment to team defence, winning three tackles and interceptions (combined), putting in two blocks and five clearances. He’s quickly becoming something of a fan favourite.
Iwobi’s clever pass into Doucoure helped spring McNeil for the winning goal and the Nigerian was again Everton’s creative fulcrum, making three key passes. Like his fellow winger, Iwobi contributed defensively, with seven ball recoveries, in addition to a total of five tackles and interceptions.
Note: I can only offer my apologies for the lateness of this column, due to unforeseen technical problems.